A new attempt to build another airport to serve San Diego is underway, with proponents working toward an airport siting measure for the 2006 ballot.
There may be no place in the United States that has studied potential airport locations more thoroughly than San Diego. Depending upon who is counting, between two dozen and 40 official, semi-official and academic studies, analyses and committee reports have presented findings and recommendations over the last three decades. All the while, Lindbergh Field — an undersized facility bordered by extensive urban development and the shoreline — remains the county’s lone commercial airport.
The latest process is being run by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, an 11-month-old entity created by state legislation that removed the airport from control of the San Diego Unified Port District. In October, the nine member Airport Authority board chose seven finalist sites from a list of 32 possibilities. Five active military bases, a location in Imperial County, and Lindbergh Field made the cut. But in late November, the board also directed its staff to use a geographic information system to hunt for new, non-military site options.
"The board feels uncomfortable with having predominately military sites," Chairman Joseph Craver explained.
The finalist sites are:
• A desert location off Interstate 8 in Imperial County
• March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County
• Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego
• Marine Corps Air Station Miramar East in San Diego
• Camp Pendleton
• North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado Island
• San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field)
Failing to make the finalist cut were a proposed facility south of the border tied to Tijuana Rodriguez International Airport, Brown Field just north of the border where the city planned and later backed away from a major cargo airport, and a proposed airport floating in the ocean.
"San Diego has studied the airport site selection subject for the last 40 years and has spent millions and millions of dollars, and, unfortunately, it has gone nowhere," Craver said. "This process is entirely different than anything that has been done in San Diego."
After so many years of floundering, San Diego is full of skeptics about the latest process. Steven Erie, an urban studies and planning professor at University of California, San Diego, said the process is stacked in favor of Lindbergh Field expansion. The Airport Authority’s "public working group" that provided the initial list of 32 potential sites was merely a "fig leaf," said Erie, who was a member of the group.
Six of the seven finalist sites make a Lindbergh Field expansion appear to be the only real option, Erie contended. Five of the sites are active military bases — including March, which is nearly 100 miles from downtown San Diego — and the non-military alternative is 85 miles east of downtown in the Imperial County desert, he pointed out.
Former state legislator James Mills, who helped carry the 1962 legislation that created the Port District, agreed that the process is loaded in favor of Lindbergh Field expansion. The requirement of voter approval for a new site "is a stinger," he said.
"You’ll never get the favorable vote because the opinion of the public is so divided," Mills contended. "If you take it to a vote, moving the airport loses."
Both Erie and Mills said the process is loaded for Lindbergh Field because former state Sen. Steve Peace, who authored the 2002 legislation that put Lindbergh Field under control of the Airport Authority and gave the new agency power to site a new facility, does not want a new airport. Mills noted the Peace said publicly for years that he opposed any new airport, a stance from which he later backed away.
"This all started because the Port District started to look for a new airport," Mills said. Peace’s legislation was a reaction, Mills said.
Still, Erie and Mills concede that an expanded Lindbergh Field is probably the best answer politically. Proponents of the idea note that about 160 acres of industrial property and a small, but active, military base lie next to the airport and could be part of an expansion.
But the Airport Authority’s Craver dismissed the notion that the process favors Lindbergh Field. He noted that even with improvements, Lindbergh Field is expected to reach its capacity in 15 years. With 600 acres and no possibility to configure a second runway that would allow simultaneous landings and takeoffs, Lindbergh Field cannot be the only airport, Craver insisted. At best, Lindbergh Field could complement a second airport, he said.
Lindbergh Field is one of the smallest metropolitan airports in the United States. The Airport Authority is searching for a site of 2,800 to 3,000 acres for a new facility. Denver’s airport, one of the country’s newest, occupies about 35,000 acres, most of which are buffer zones.
The military bases are proposed to be "enhanced joint-use" projects with extensive new facilities for civilians, although that approach could change if the planned 2005 round of base closures includes one of the five facilities. The Imperial County site could be served by high-speed rail and might be the only potential airport site with significant local support.
Sunil Harman, director of airport system planning for the Airport Authority, said the seven finalist sites were selected based on economic feasibility, and potential impacts on people and the environment. The next phase of analysis will be more detailed and consider weather conditions, site constraints, geology, infrastructure availability, market demands and more, Harman said. In November, Congress passed a bill containing $10 million for the second phase of study.
"This is a unique process in that it’s being dictated by state legislation," Harman said.
That legislation requires voter consent by 2006. Exactly what the Airport Authority will place before voters is unknown. Harman said he expects voters will get multiple choices. Craver promised that airport supporters will run an aggressive political campaign to win voters’ approval for the best option.
"There is no question that we will be successful," Craver said. "We all signed on to this process knowing that it is a political minefield. We all know everybody wants a solution but not in their backyards."
Joseph Craver, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Board, (619) 299-9950.
Sunil Harman, Airport Authority system planning, (619) 400-2461.
Steven Erie, UC San Diego Department of Urban Studies and Planning, (858) 534-3083.
Airport Authority website: www.san.org